Libby Barringer is a 2020 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She writes fantasy and science fiction, and she lives in the New York Hudson Valley with her husband and their excellent cat. She earned her PhD in political science in 2016 from UCLA, and when not writing, she teaches courses in political philosophy and literature with Bard College and with the Bard Prison Initiative.
If you are thinking about attending Odyssey, chances are you are grappling with a few big questions: Is this the right workshop for me? Will this help my writing, and will this help me in my professional career? What do attendees actually do for all six weeks of classes? How much more is there really to learn about writing, and can the workshop really deliver? Is it really as intense as everyone says?
Answers: yes, almost certainly, so much, so much, yes, and yes.
How do you know if Odyssey is for you? I went into Odyssey as a fairly confident writer—as an academic by training, I spend a lot of time with words. I was submitting short fiction to markets and getting decent feedback…but I had the sense my work could be better. More accurately, I had the sense that I was making avoidable errors with plot and pacing, and that maybe there was a better way to go about the writing process than my own cobbled together strategy (there was). I was feeling things out on my own, in the dark, in the manner of one stubbing toes.
I applied to Odyssey because I wanted a community of people who could push me to improve, and especially I wanted a community of writers who cared about genre fiction. I wanted to really dig into the art of writing, and to hear from experts and successful authors talking about their craft. I was also looking to learn more about how the professional world of genre fiction actually works—what were the norms of the field? What kinds of markets were out there, and what sorts of agents? What kinds of opportunities exist for aspiring authors, and what pitfalls?
In March of 2020, approximately a week after the Odyssey application deadline, most of the US went into lockdown due to Covid-19. As a result, the 2020 Odyssey summer workshop was moved online. As someone who has spent a lot of time in classrooms, I was anxious about the online format. Was it really worth committing six weeks of my summer—usually the time I get most of my work done—to hang out in a digital classroom with a bunch of strangers? Would the experience be as rigorous as the in-person workshop? And how could the community and camaraderie which so many Odyssey alums spoke of possibly be replicated online?
I should not have worried. The online summer workshop was intense and focused, supportive and social. It was everything I had hoped. More importantly, it was everything that I needed, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. For six weeks I had the privilege of talking and thinking about writing with a group of talented, brilliant authors passionate about genre fiction. My classmates Zoomed in from around the globe in New York, Portland, Dublin, Mumbai, LA, central Indiana, and Utah. They brought with them tales of fairy moths, flesh eating telepathic maternal worms, cyborgs, alien ornithology, evil queens who never seem to catch a break, and adolescent deities. Some had published novels. Others had multiple short stories under their belts and had won prizes for their writing. Others, like me, were just getting started. Our fearless leader, Jeanne Cavelos, quickly put us to work.
What was the online experience like? Even online, Odyssey’s schedule was demanding. Lectures start at 9:00 am EDT, running for roughly two and a half hours—but most days I was up earlier to polish off a final journal assignment, or get some of my own writing done. The afternoon sessions are given over to two hours of critiques, where your Odyssey crewmates lovingly tear your writing apart, diagnose its strengths and weaknesses, and offer paths for revision. By 3:00 on most days, you’re done—but that’s when the real work starts. Every evening there are two to three of your classmates’ stories to read and critique for the following day, plus journal entries and readings assigned by Jeanne or our guest speakers. Sometimes there are guest lectures or Q & A sessions in the evenings. Then, of course, there’s the writing.
You will write or heavily revise at least four or five new stories during your time at Odyssey (many people write six.) You will spend just about all your free time writing or thinking about writing. You will probably lose sleep. Your brain may hurt. The experience is intense and transformative. No doubt, if you are thinking about Odyssey you are capable of coming up with a pretty solid story. But after single day at Odyssey you may find yourself amazed at how much more there is to learn. Jeanne led us through the deeply technical aspects of writing in a structured, clear way. She showed us practical tools and strategies to put to work in our own stories. She had us workshop and discuss published work so we could see how successful authors dealt with the challenges of writing. Every afternoon we analyzed each other’s writing for voice, character goal, grammatical flow, theme, and pacing (you will learn an enormous amount from your fellow classmates.) In the evenings, we applied those lessons to our own work.
Jeanne, throughout, was supportive and available. She held regular online office hours, lunches, and Friday night games and ‘salons.’ She was always happy to talk about a project, point out a resource, or help you through a block. In a word, Jeanne is generous: generous with her time, generous with her knowledge about writing and the writing industry, and generous with her honesty. A word more on that last point: one of the most valuable parts of Odyssey is the direct, honest feedback you receive about your work. Jeanne encouraged all of us to develop strong critiquing habits. Critiques were thorough and pointed—never cruel. I always knew that the class wanted the best from me and my story, whatever that might be. Indeed, the point of Odyssey isn’t to transform you into a prefabricated “Odyssey Writer™” but to help you become more fully who you already are: an author with certain sensibilities, strengths, and perspectives; an author with unique stories to tell.
This, I think, points to the real strength of the Odyssey experience. Writing is in many ways a lonely enterprise. At a certain point, it is just you and the words on the page. But the ethos of rigor and generosity which Jeanne demands makes for a powerful combination, one that fosters a community built on mutual respect and passion for the craft. Since the end of Odyssey, I have been thrilled to keep in touch with classmates through several online groups. We still support each other, critique each other’s work, and lift each other up. The same ethos is apparent in the broader Odyssey network of alums, editors, and professional authors. You may be amazed and humbled by the number of people you will meet through Odyssey who speak so positively about Jeanne and the workshop she has created. That community, like Jeanne, is generous. Perhaps you would like to join?